Navigating the Online Classroom: Teachers’ Viewpoint

Pivoting rather suddenly to a virtual learning environment brings with it a host of adjustments and necessary changes across the board. 

At St. Michael’s College School (SMCS), that has meant a ‘learning curve,’ first and foremost for teachers. After all, they are tasked with the most important job --- teaching the curriculum to each student --- now in an unconventional way, using non-traditional means. 

An SMCS teacher instructing in her online classroom over a video conference.

Depending on the grade and subject matter, the tools, technology, and approach can vary. 

What has the experience been like so far for some of these educators? Here are some of their perspectives, in their own words. 

An SMCS teacher instructing a class.

Dr. Robert Fantilli ’94, mathematics teacher at SMCS, is adapting to using a variety of apps and technological tools in the new virtual classroom.

DR. ROBERT FANTILLI ’94 teaches Grade 9 and 10 mathematics. 

In what specific ways have you had to adjust how you teach to accommodate virtual learning?

Since arriving at St. Michael's, I have been challenged to increase my skill set with respect to technology in the classroom. Making this a personal and professional goal, I explored a myriad of apps and online tools that would mesh well with my teaching philosophy and practice. As such, I created a YouTube channel and created videos on many of my lessons that are now serving my students well in this environment. 

My daily lesson plans have flipped so that students are tasked with watching a video lesson as homework and attending our virtual class for extra guided practice. 

It certainly has been an adjustment in terms of exploring useful sites and virtual tools to aid with collaboration that would also allow me to employ teaching methods I already have in place. For example, I am a big fan of the Notability app. Being able to answer questions using this app, while sharing your screen with students, and at the same time being able to see our virtual classroom in case someone electronically raises their hand --- was a must. Over the second week of our March Break, once I realized online teaching was our new reality, I became a student again and researched, researched, researched. 

I came across an app (Jitsi) that is open source and easy to use. This has been instrumental in allowing me to transition more seamlessly to the online environment while maintaining a reasonable level of ownership for the learning and convenience to students. 

What other changes have you had to make in order to optimize the online teaching experience for yourself and learning for your students?

On a personal level, I have had to rely heavily on my wife who thankfully is also an educator and very sympathetic to the learning challenges we are faced with in this unprecedented scenario. 

It has been a challenge to be sequestered to my office sitting for hours planning and delivering. I miss standing and walking around the classroom. I am now making time to get active in the afternoons. 

When I taught elementary school, we had a 20-minute daily physical activity requirement. I need that now --- times 10! Perhaps I need to invest in an exercise ball to sit on instead, to assist with this aspect of hunching over the computers. I use the plural form here as I have an iPad, Macbook Pro, and a Microsoft Surface Pro, all of which I am using simultaneously in my virtual teaching practice. 

I must tip my hat to our leadership for providing access to hardware, software, and amazing IT support in the moment and behind-the-scenes that allows me the foundation on which to make any of this possible. 

An SMCS teacher helping students during class.

Chemistry teacher Annelise Beaton Smith is adopting new online tools for her senior students, while striving to translate some of the hands-on science skills in a virtual environment.

ANNELISE BEATON SMITH teaches Grade 11 and 12 science (chemistry). 

What inspires and motivates you as an educator, in this sudden 'new world' and given the heightened anxiety everywhere, at this time?

I am thrilled that at SMCS we still have the opportunity to continue learning together. 
This is a challenging time for everyone, but I know that we will emerge out of it more resilient than we would have otherwise been. It is forcing us to be adaptable and to be problem solvers. I want to be a consistent presence in my students’ lives, and I am excited to see how they rise out of this challenging time stronger than ever before.

In what specific ways did you have to adjust your teaching approach to accommodate virtual learning?

Switching to virtual learning forced me to experiment with many new technologies. Video conferencing, online assessments, and virtual whiteboards. 

The pace of online learning is different than the pace when we are in the classroom. We cover a lot less content when we are together, during a video chat, and the students have to do a lot more on their own. The students are learning how to make notes and organize their information in a new way as well. I need to allow time for them to try new things, troubleshoot, and still be able to keep up. 

What, if any, are the specific challenges of an online environment as they pertain to science?

We do not yet know if or how the Universities will modify their expectations of first-year students. I have to keep in mind that the more of the curriculum I get through, the better prepared my Grade 12 students will be next year. 

Second, a major component of any science course is experimental and hands-on learning. I still have to do some brainstorming about whether or not some of those experiences can be incorporated into our online course.

PASQUALE (PAT) MANCUSO ’90 teaches Grade 10 and 11 history.

SMCS teacher,Pat Mancuso.

Teaching 126 students a history course in a virtual environment, Pasquale Mancuso ’90, says communication is even more critical in a virtual classroom.

How would you summarize your approach to teaching in this new online environment?

My overall approach has been to deliver curriculum gradually. I started all my classes on the first day with a written reflection about how political leaders at all levels of government have dealt with the epidemic. Students were very receptive to this and were eager to communicate opinions they had been formulating for several weeks. Only then did I begin delivering the course content. I am still proceeding slowly to ensure students are adapting to the new methodology and developing a routine.

What have been some of your keys to success so far?

The key to success is communication skills --- whether it's posting work to Edsby or running a live class. Strong communication skills will ensure a productive experience for students. 

Motivation comes from thinking of the student and his experience on the other end of the screen. He is hoping for some positive connection with the outside world, assuring him things are somewhat normal out there, and that there's somebody on the other end who is still taking academics seriously. 

Any helpful tips you can offer to students?

To students, I would advise that time management is still the key to success. Keep up with work on a daily basis, take breaks when you can, eat healthy, and step outside for some fresh air. Overall, have hope: this too shall pass.

An SMCS teacher instructing a class.

Biology teacher, Christopher Bergin teaches more than 120 students in three grade levels and is inspired by his students’ transition to an online classroom.

CHRISTOPHER BERGIN teaches Grade 8, 9, and 11 science (biology). 

How would you summarize your overall approach to and objective in this sudden new world of remote learning? 

My objective for this new remote learning is to stay connected with my students and maintain the relationships we have built throughout the year. It is difficult for any of us to be separated from family and friends, and especially difficult for the students as social young men. It is imperative to have the students stay connected with their teachers but also with their peers as we lean on others in this difficult time. 

My overall approach in this remote learning is to take it slow as the world changes so quickly around us. I am trying not to plan too far in advance but to keep the students active and engaged now when we are together remotely. 

What have you learned about this 'new world' that has surprised you most? 

I have been most surprised with our students’ ability to adapt to this ‘new world’. By the end of our first online class, most, if not all my students, were already well-adjusted to this online learning and understood what was expected of them. Students were connecting with each other, sharing resources, tips and tricks for Zoom or Edsby, and showing collaboration skills that have been thrust upon them in this ‘new world’. 

What is the key to success, in your opinion, to ensure compliance, engagement, and participation from students?

One important note to ensure compliance, engagement, and participation from students is to ensure they know that you are here for them specifically. It is easy for students to perceive that they are another ‘observer’ of the lesson but calling on students by name and making them have a voice in their learning is vital. Having small little conversations with students --- of activities they are doing outside of the class --- lets them know you are here for them and will help ensure they are there for you as a teacher. 

SMCS student engaged in learning in his online classroom at home.

On March 24, 2020, students and faculty at St. Michael’s College School moved to an online learning environment, as a result of government-mandated school building closures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Check out our photo gallery of what online learning looks like at SMCS.